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Category — Tour de France 2007

Cancellara: I Won’t Back Down

Stage Three
Waregem to Compiegne
236.6 kilometers/147 miles
Stage: Fabian Cancellara (CSC) 6:36:15
Maillot Juene: Fabian Cancellara (CSC)
Green: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Polka-dot: Stéphane Augé (Cofidis)

About five miles from the end of today’s stage, announcers Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen made the point that if the breakaway succeeded, not only would the winner beat the odds and get an improbable stage win, the bonus points for the victory might snatch the maillot juene from leader Fabian Cancellara.

After two riders broke away early and were joined by a couple more, the peleton dawdled through the much of the longest stage of the race. For the first hour of watching (and this was two hours into the race, which went 147 miles), the peleton riders were smiling and laughing, complacent, horsing around, lessening the tension that had built yesterday before the crash and perhaps letting all those sore muscles, cuts and scrapes and stitches begin the healing process.

But at the five-kilometer mark, the peleton, as Sherwen described it, had become a “black, hairy mass trying to pull back their prey,” in this case, a four-man breakaway that included Stéphane Augé, who was in the breakaway yesterday but failed in his quest to wear the polka-dot jersey claimed by David Millar.

The leaders were tired, disjointed and losing time in clumps as they rolled into Compiegne, but on they went through the twisted streets. When they hit the cobblestone stretch, Leggitt was still claiming that the peleton wasn’t going to catch the breakaway.

But as the leaders turned into the last sprint, all four, perhaps dead tired after being in front for more than 130 miles and seeing the peleton round the corner, decided to play cat-and-mouse, which cost each dearly.

Everybody seemed confused as the peleton overtook the group. Except one. Before any of the sprint teams could set up or organize, Cancellara, sans a lead-off CSC teammate, accelerated quickly, a move generally considered a no-no at that early point in the sprint.

A couple teams tried to set up their riders, but Cancellara lit the afterburners, leaving the top sprinters in the world eating his slipstream, gasping for air. “That’ll serve ‘em right,” cackled Liggett after Cancellara raised his hands in victory. It was the first statement in the race for the general classification; Cancellara said he wasn’t ready to give up the yellow jersey just yet and got the twenty-second bonus for the stage win.

Tom Boonen’s strong finish increased his Green Jersey lead by six points over Robbie McEwen, who once again found himself in the wrong place for the final sprint, perhaps, like the others, flummoxed by the animal strength in Cancellara’s move. Augé redeemed Monday’s performance by taking the category four hill near the end. The polka-dot jersey will rest on his shoulders Wednesday.

July 10, 2007   No Comments

Steegmans Escapes Crash, Wins Stage Two

Stage Two
168.5 kilometers/104.7 miles
Stage: Gert Steegmans (Quick Step) 3:48:22
Maillot Jeune: Fabian Cancellara (CSC)
Green Jersey: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Polka-dot Jersey: Tom Millar (Saunier Duval)

Alexander Vinokourov crossed himself at the finish line. That image pretty much told the story of Stage Two. Vinokourov was happy to find himself just ahead of a monster peleton pile-up just more than a mile from the line. The melee, apparently started by a Milram rider in the middle of the peleton who pulled out of his right pedal, weaved a bit and hit another rider, starting a chain reaction of bodies piling into bikes and other bodies like colorful toys being scattered across a playroom.

The peleton had just chased down a three-rider breakaway that lasted until the three kilometer mark. As Paul Sherwen likes to say, by that time the peleton was angry and the teams preparing for the final dash that announcer Phil Liggett had predicted was a classic location for a pile-up if it came down to the sprinters at the end.

There had been rain, and a couple of earlier mishaps, but most of the stage was a nice ramble through the Belgian countryside. The race was won by Gert Steegmans, lead-out man for Tom Boonen, who was right behind him. Their Quick Step teammates put them into position soon after the crash. Steegmans led Boonen out for the win, boxing out a surging Robbie Hunter, Fillippo Pozzato and McEwen, who pressed him so he couldn’t slow down for Boonen. He wound up taking the stage himself. (It might be worth noting that Boonen has not had that heavy last step two days in a row, fading behind McEwen’s explosive burst in Monday’s stage.)

So it was Steegmans, Boonen and Liquigas’ Pozzato. Robbie Hunter came in with another strong sprint for the fourth spot. Coming in second still gave Boonen enough points to wrest the Green jersey from Robbie McEwen.

Leader Fabian Cancellara was really favoring his left wrist as he pedaled in after the crash. He told reporters later that though the accident happened near the end, the peleton had been restless and jumpy all day, so he wasn’t that surprised. His injury is described in most blogs and papers as minor. George Hincapie was among the casualties was a badly cut knee, and Tomas Vaitkus broke his thumb, which might mean he is out of the race. Another rider, Daniele Bennati, was taken to a hospital to look at his hip.

I don’t know how much it matters, but I wouldn’t want to be the Milram rider who instigated the crash, especially since he managed not to fall and sprinted to the finish while those behind him picked up the pieces.

July 9, 2007   No Comments

Stage One: Another Robbie McEwen Miracle!

Stage One
203 kilometers/126 miles
Stage: Robbie McEwen 4:39
Maillot Jeune: Fabian Cancellara (CSC)

When you are dealing with elite athletes, one thing separates the truly exceptional from the merely great. At that level, there is more to it than just skill, although that is certainly important. It is the ability to make your move at exactly the right moment to ensure victory. Jack Nicklaus certainly had that ability, and Tiger Woods often demonstrates that same instinct. Larry Bird and Michael Jordon exploited their mastery of the moment on many occasions.

In my five years of watching Le Tour, Lance Armstrong is easily the best I have ever seen at this. He rarely made the mistake of breaking too quickly or not waiting long enough. Who could forget the many times he challenged competitors to keep up with him at some point along a dramatic mountain stage, or the way he eliminated Jan Ullrich by flying past him during the time-trial prologue on the first day of the 2005 tour?

Although he is a sprinter, another master of that ability to go at just the right time is Australian/Belgian Robbie McEwen. One of the tour’s most rigorous competitors and certainly the most entertaining rider on the course, McEwen is known for his stealth-like ability to remain anonymous throughout the race and appear suddenly at the sprint with a burst of energy that lasts all of five seconds, just enough to push him ahead of the rest of the field.

Today England’s David Millar attacked immediately in London in an attempt to win the King of the Mountain competition and don the polka-dot jersey on his home soil. Four other riders were still with him on ht first breakaway when the television feed came on with 55 miles to go.

The peleton followed through the hilly, narrow country roads of Kent. Eduardo Gonzalo crashed through the rear window of a team car and was eliminated in his first stage of the tour ever, and there were a couple of minor tussles. One of those involved McEwen, who at thirteen miles to go, was thrown over his bike, injuring his right wrist in the process.

“About 20 K to go I crashed,” McEwen said after the race. “My teammates waited for me. After that it was not easy. I will have to drink champagne with my left hand.”

The group didn’t return to the main body, which had caught the breakaway after a brave but panting Stephane Auge of Cofidis held everyone else off to the crest of Farthing Common Hill for the last King of the Mountain points, until the last mad dash to the finish line.

McEwen, led by four team members. finally rejoined the peleton at the three-mile mark and disappeared into the 186-rider pack. At the front, at the one kilometer point, Quick-Step built a four-rider train for Tom Boonen, who faded as Barloworld’s Robbie Hunter attacked from the opposite side. But then, at exactly the right moment, seemingly from nowhere, the familiar silhouette of McEwen cut like a knife through the middle of the pack with less than five seconds left (of a four hour and thirty-nine minute race), and suddenly it was over.

“Anger and frustration got me to the line,” McEwen admitted. “I had nothing to lose to try, and it worked out.” It was McEwen’s twelfth career tour stage victory, and perhaps his finest yet.

Sprinters have center stage all week. We probably won’t know much about who might be wearing the maillot jeune in Paris until the mountains sort out the contenders next weekend. Cancellera leads the race after Saturday’s prologue, with Andreas Kloden 13 seconds back and Millar 21. A few days to sit back and enjoy Robbie and the sprinters weaving their end-of-the-line magic.

July 8, 2007   No Comments

Prologue Tour de France 2007

July 7, 2007

Not a lot of drama in the prologue, a five-mile dash among the most famous landmarks of London, but it was a good way to get back into the rhythms of the tour. The first time the race has begun in that history-drenched city, and it’s kinda cool watching the riders blast past the Serpentine and Buckingham Palace, places I have actually walked. (I have never been to France.) But on the telly, London is as powerful a prologue setting as Paris is at the end of this endurance race.

Announcers for the recently named Versus (formerly OLN) network remain Al Trautwig, Bob Roll, Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett, all of whom dashed through the particulars of the drug scandal over the last twelve months as well as trying to call out possible candidates for the maillot jaune. The overall message was “new era,” and I think they are holding their collective breaths just as we are.

The course was challenging, with several places where the riders had to slow down for a tight corner before accelerating again. Save veteran Stuart O’Grady coming around the last turn before the straightaway last kilometer, everybody stayed on their mounts.

Winner Fabian Cancellera just skunked the rest of the field by thirteen seconds. Bradley Wiggins, a Londoner who really wanted to win, came in at 9:13, not enough to even catch Andreas Kloden, who clocked 9:03 early on and kept the lead for quite awhile until Cancellera’s legs became pistons going fast enough that he almost overtook the motorcycles leading him at the by-then-named O’Grady curve. From there it was like he was shot out of a cannon. Most excellent tour blogger Martin Dugard (who I strongly recommend reading for insightful analysis) writes that Cancellera is a good candidate to keep the yellow jersey for another day. He had calmly predicted victory during the week.

Team-wise, the Astana squad looks impressive and confident, and the announcers said that they had dominated a recent European race. Team CSC looks strong, and even Discovery is showing signs of life again. Nothing given away here, but, finally, we have ignition; off for Canterbury 120 miles away on Sunday.

July 7, 2007   No Comments

The Day Before Le Tour de France Begins

July 6, 2007

For the next three weeks, this weblog is unofficially subtitled Le Tour in My Head. It’s Tour number five for Billie and I, and the first in its long history to begin in England. I wish that were the big news. But the big news, as we all know, is the miasma of doping.

It has taken heavy tolls. Ivan Basso, the brightest light for winning this tour in the post-Armstrong era, and perennial runner-up Jan Ullrich are done, the former serving a suspension after a sac of his blood was found in a dirty doctor’s lab, and the latter retired amid swirling accusations of drug use though the same M.D. The 2007 official tour guide lists no winner for last year’s race. The first-place finisher, Floyd Landis, is awaiting an arbitration hearing that he will almost surely lose after testing positive for elevated testosterone levels last year, in which case his title would go to Oscar Pereiro.

It was announced this week that Italy’s Alessandro Petacchi, considered by some the best sprinter in the world, will begin serving a one-year ban after a non-negative doping test at the Giro d’Italia earlier this year.

The organization that governs the sport, Union Cycliste Internationale (UC), is taking the extraordinary measure of forcing riders to sign a statement that says anyone caught doping at le Tour will forfeit one year’s salary, a heavy hit for any racer save perhaps the top ones. Sprinter Robbie McEwen told The New York Times that the contract should extend to team managers, assistants, doctors and other Tour hangers-on.

To be honest, the whole doping thing exasperates me. I don’t know enough about the physical mechanisms of doping to make an informed decision. After going cross-eyed trying to educate myself on the issue through the Landis case, let’s just say that I don’t trust the tests (or those who test) anymore than I trust the riders.

The race itself is wide open at this point. I don’t follow the European press in the off-season, but there is a lot of speculation about Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov, who was absent last year because his team couldn’t field enough riders to compete. Vinokourov is easily the most exciting and unorthodox rider among the bunch, but I’m not convinced he has the full winning package. He has never worked particularly well with his teammates. He has never shown the basic smarts we have seen in winners like Armstrong or Landis, that ability to take advantage at exactly the moment necessary, and he is 33, the age that Armstrong retired.

Germany’s Andreas Klöden, who came in third last year, is on the same Astana team, and there could be tension; who could forget T-Mobile teammates Klöden and Ullrich chasing down a Vinokourov breakaway in 2005? Other names tossed around include Alejandro Valverde, who broke his collarbone in a particularly nasty fall during last year’s third stage, and Carlos Sastre, who has on his CSC team the explosive young David Zabriskie as well as wily veterans Bobby Julich and Stuart O’Grady.

Over here, many eyes are on Team Discovery and its new leader, Levi Leipheimer, a resolute racer who has shown the smarts but not the overall strength to win le Tour. He will be aided by a team that includes several holdovers from last year’s squad, including vet George Hincapie.

Last year was the first one that I really got into the sprint and king-of-the-mountain competitions, so I’m looking forward to Tom Boonen, Thor Hushovd, Oscar Freire, Thomas Dekker and the always entertaining Mr. McEwen in the former, and iron man Mickael Rasmussen in the latter category, who last year just flat out kicked everybody’s ass in the mountain competition.

The dopecloud will shroud the tour. So be it. Still, I can’t wait to fall under the spell of the Tour’s day-to-day dramas and adventures. Enough speculation, enough talk. All riders tested negative Thursday morning. Let’s roll.

July 6, 2007   1 Comment